Les défis de l’industrie de l’hélium

OXFORD – L’hélium est un gaz indispensable dans un monde moderne reposant sur la technologie. Il permet par exemple de refroidir, avec une grande précision, les résistances des appareils d’imagerie par résonance magnétique (IRM), de même que le silicium utilisé pour concevoir les puces électroniques d’appareils de type smartphones, ou encore le verre des fibres optiques. En matière de fusées alimentées par pression, de physique de haut vol, et même s’agissant des ballons d’anniversaire, il n’existe aucune alternative réaliste à l’hélium.

Jusqu’à récemment, les quantités apparemment abondantes d’hélium autour du monde étaient simplement extraites en tant que sous-produit de la production de gaz naturel, sur une vingtaine de sites riches de cette ressource. Les déficits mondiaux de la production d’hélium ont cependant peu à peu engendré une inflation à deux chiffres des prix de cette ressource, et suscitent l’inquiétude croissante de la communauté scientifique. Désormais, les prospecteurs opérant aux États-Unis – premier exportateur mondial d’hélium – explorent exclusivement un certain nombre de sites à la recherche d’hélium.

Les pénuries d’hélium soulèvent inévitablement un débat quant aux pratiques relatives à sa production et à sa préservation. Depuis l’adoption de l’Helium Privatization Act (HPA) américain de 1996 – qui exige que le gouvernement liquide ses réserves d’hélium selon une formule de prix fixe afin de rembourser la dette accumulée depuis la survenance d’un important achat d’hélium dans les années 1960 – trois pénuries de ce type se sont produites.

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